US atrocity against Taliban POWs: Whatever happened to the Geneva Convention?

By Jerry White
28 November 2001

Despite the silence in the American media and the lies from Bush
administration officials, there is growing international outrage over 
the systematic massacre of hundreds of Taliban prisoners of war in
Mazar-i-Sharif on Sunday and Monday. This act of mass murder was 
carried out by US warplanes and helicopter gunships, directed by US Special 
Forces and CIA personnel, and backed by several thousand soldiers of the 
Northern Alliance. As many as 800 prisoners were killed at the Qala-i-Janghi

The government of Pakistan, under intense public pressure because 
hundreds of Pakistani volunteers were among the Taliban troops taken prisoner,
strongly condemned the prison massacre and declared that it contravened 
UN Security Council resolutions urging respect for the Geneva Convention.
President Pervez Musharraf, the military strongman who seized power in
Pakistan two years ago, has backed the US military onslaught against 
his former allies in the Taliban, and US forces used Pakistani bases as 
part of the campaign against the prisoners in Mazar-i-Sharif.

A columnist in the Pakistani newspaper The Nation declared that the
killings at Mazar-i-Sharif can only be quantified as a conspiracy and
premeditated genocide. Rejecting the claims that the prisoners caused
their own deaths by engaging in a suicidal uprising, he wrote, it is 
most unlikely that only recently surrendered captives would rise in sudden 
and open revolt against their captorsunless their very lives were at stake.

No matter how US officials try to gloss over what happened, there could 
be no justification, even from a military standpoint, for the wanton
slaughter of hundreds of captured soldiers. News accounts acknowledge 
the 19th century fortress was encircled by thousands of heavily armed 
Northern Alliance troops, as well as US and British special forces, whose base 
is located at a military airport just outside of the fort.

Even if some prisoners had seized their guards weapons, as US officials
and the media claim, they did not have the manpower or ammunition to 
hold out against the tanks, jets and the superior ground forces arrayed 
against them. The only proper designation for the action taken by the US 
military is a premeditated war crime.

What was done in Mazar-i-Sharif was entirely in line with the policies
advocated by top US officials, including Defense Secretary Donald
Rumsfeld, who has repeatedly said that he favors the killing of Taliban
soldiers, especially those from outside of Afghanistan, rather than 
their capture and imprisonment.

Almost as sickening as the massacre itself is the universal silence on 
the part of the American media, including the so-called liberal press, 
about the cold-blooded murder of Taliban prisoners. Not a single US newspaper 
or media outletmany of which had reporters on the scene who know exactly 
what happenedhas raised any serious questions about the action.

Demonstrating a racist contempt for the lives of hundreds of Afghan and
foreign prisoners killed by bombs and bullets, the US news media 
focused its attention on half a dozen American military and CIA personnel hit 
by friendly fire when US warplanes bombed the compound. While CNN 
broadcast pictures of dozens of mutilated corpses strewn around the inside of the
prison, as well as earlier scenes of Northern Alliance and US and 
British forces firing over the walls of the compound at prisoners, there was 
much more media interest in the possible death of one CIA interrogator. One
could only imagine how the US media would have reported the killing of
Northern Alliance prisoners by Taliban troops if the sides had been

The two leading US daily newspapers offered radically different
explanations of the massacre. The New York Times quoted a Red Cross
official claiming the prisoners started the fight and that the Northern
Alliance troops had not sought to attack them. It cited the controlling
role of American Special Forces and CIA personnel, who took over the
operation, as though this guaranteed that no extrajudicial killings 
could have taken place.

The Washington Post, on the other hand, essentially admitted that the
prisoners were murdered, but attributed the killings to the Northern
Alliance: A precise death toll could not be determined, but the 
apparently large number of Taliban deaths, compared to the reported killing of 
about 40 Northern Alliance fighters, raised questions here about the whether 
the violence was less an uprising than a massacre orchestrated by alliance
troops, the Post wrote Tuesday.

These accounts are diametrically opposite presentations of the facts, 
but they serve an identical political purpose: to deny that the US forces 
were responsible for a monstrous war crime. This perfectly expresses the 
role of the American media, which takes as its starting point, not providing
objective information to the American people, but justifying, through
every manner of lie and distortion, the actions of the American

A few important facts did make their way into the Times account, 
however. The newspaper reports that the presence of CIA interrogators in the 
prison yard seemed to be the spark to the rebellion:

By midmorning, some prisoners were being interviewed by the chief of
intelligence for the area from the Northern Alliance, Said Kamal, 
together with two C.I.A. operatives, alliance officials said.

The presence of the Americans may have caused anger or desperation 
among some of the foreign Taliban, who may be part of Osama bin Ladens Al 
Qaeda network or who fear extradition to their home countries.

One group of Northern Alliance fighters who were inside the compound at
the time said the sight of the C.I.A. officials led to the revolt.

And the Times further notes that the rebellion began while the 
prisoners were being searched on Sunday morning: About 250 prisoners had been
checked, and their arms were tied, said foreign journalists who had 
been allowed to witness the scene. This strongly suggests that many of those
who died 600 to 800 Taliban compared to only a few dozen Northern 
Alliance troopswere killed while they were bound and unable to defend 

POWs and the laws of war

It is particularly noteworthy that no one in the media or liberal
establishment has raised the obvious violation of international law
concerning the treatment of prisoners of war, including the Geneva
Convention, on the part of both the Northern Alliance and the American

Article 3 of the Convention states that members of the armed forces who
have laid down their arms ... shall in all circumstances be treated
humanely, without any adverse distinction founded on race, color, 
religion or faith ... or any other similar criteria.

This is precisely the procedure that was carried out by the Northern
Alliance forces at the surrender of the Taliban troops in the besieged
city of Kunduz. Several thousand Afghan Taliban were immediately 
paroled upon surrender, and either incorporated into the ranks of the Northern
Alliance or allowed to return to their home villages. The foreign-born
Taliban, however, were either killed singly, in acts of individual 
murder, or rounded up in large groups and trucked away for subsequent
interrogation, torture and execution.

During the week-long siege of Kunduz, US Secretary of Defense Donald
Rumsfeld made repeated statements calling for the killing or 
imprisonment of all captured foreign Talibanin other words, he demanded that the
Northern Alliance systematically violate the Geneva Convention.

The Convention specifically prohibits violence to life and person, in
particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture
and the passing of sentences and the carrying out of executions without
previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court affording
all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by
civilized peoples.

The torture of POWs is specifically prohibited in Article 17, which
states: No physical or mental torture, nor any other form of coercion, 
may be inflicted on prisoners of war to secure from them information of any
kind whatever. Prisoners of war who refuse to answer may not be
threatened, insulted, or exposed to unpleasant or disadvantageous
treatment of any kind.

Finally, of particular relevance to the events of the last few days, 
the Geneva Convention states in Article 23 that no prisoner of war may be 
sent to, or detained in areas where he may be exposed to fire or the combat
zone and that prisoners of war must be afforded protection against air
bombardment and other hazards of war.

This is not the first time in recent years that US military forces have
systematically disregarded these laws of war. In the final days of the
Persian Gulf War US warplanes massacred thousands of retreating Iraqi
troops in what one US pilot compared to shooting fish in a barrel. The
road north from Kuwait City was so littered with the charred remains of
Iraqi soldiers, trucks, cars and other vehicles that it became known as
the Highway of Death.

The Geneva Convention was drawn up in the aftermath of World War II in 
an effort to place some restrictions on the murderous proclivities of the
great powers. Today the Bush administration brazenly disregards
international law and carries out war crimes, with barely a word of
protest coming out of the US.

In the absence of any significant international outcry against the
massacre at Mazar-i-Sharif, there is the danger that an even bigger
bloodbath will be perpetrated at Kandahar, the second largest city of
Afghanistan, where several thousand US Marines and US Special Forces 
and their newly recruited (and well-paid) allies among the Pushtun tribal
chiefs are closing in on the last Taliban stronghold.


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